Monkeydemon is the reason I stand on this bridge above a man-made lake in the middle of which sits a man-made island. It is 10:30 on New Years Eve. Anticipatory bangs, pops, and shouts stumble in the pitched distance. I parked in a cutoff in fog-laden brush. No cars passed as I carried my package the 20 yards or so. Not that I expect anyone at this particular time on this particular night to be out in this part of town, but I am careful nonetheless.
The little motor at my feet hums softly as it inflates a raft, which I’d bought at a sporting goods store two days ago and which fits neatly in a container about as big as a suitcase. And this rope-ladder with hooks? Got it online. I am not the Mission Impossible type, let’s be clear. Expect no derring-do or gunplay; I, Shope (as in hope, not shop), am as normal as a man can be who sees voices and hears visions. I am you, my make-pretend captured audience of one. You know my cravings, desires, dreams, goals, my to-ings, and fro-ings, stagnant days and sheltered nights. I slouch toward late middle age. I don’t do paths of glory. I hang on.
When my Jenny died I prayed for strength and I became strong. I prayed for acceptance, and I accepted. I prayed that I would see her again in heaven, and while I do not presume, I believe that Jenny waits for me. So, Christian pillars held, up to a point. However, I soon rediscovered that their foundation rests upon a pre-Christian world.
For as I prayed, Monkeydemon watched from the shadows. Silent, at first, but that didn’t last long, not with him. Before my final “amen,” Monkeydemon would screech and howl and jump and scream and pound his chest. He and I are not one, but we’re way too close. Monkey see, monkey do. Monkeydemon would tell memory-ghosts off, cursing, spitting, shaking fists and throwing shit. Really, though, it would be me in the morning silence drinking tea before going to work, thinking about people I know and have known.
Darrington County Park closes at dusk. The gates are locked and though it’s never been acknowledged officially, I know that cameras dot the roads, walkways, and trails but not, I bet, the lake, and certainly not this part of the water, which, after all, sits just outside the boundary. This is the only way in that avoids detection, and I need to get in.
I will free myself of raging hatred, and stop pissing poison into the universe. I do not possess a physical list, but there are enemies. What I would do to them. I would kill and mutilate them, drink their blood, suck the marrow out of their bones and then devil their souls. “Who?” you ask. Why people of the everyday. A boss, coworker, acquaintance, relative, someone who got to the microwave in the pantry before me, another from 30 years ago who’d ridiculed my political views, a kid in the old neighborhood who bullied me: Everyone, even the dead. Mom and Dad aren’t spared, especially Mom.
But it’s all Monkeydemon, because then I’d meet the ones in the here and now in real life. Have a nice chat with my boss, give my brother a lift to get his car from the shop and think: “What the hell was all that angry drama about, anyway?”
Early on in our marriage Jenny taught me, “People are holy.” And the sight of the “enemy” always breaks the fever. It’s not him. It’s not her. It’s me. It’s Monkeydemon. And the ghosts? People from my past, dead or living, who I will never see again? Well, they just fade. Monkeydemon shuffles off on his knuckles, and even after all these years I hope that’s the exit. But he never goes far. Because just like that, the whiff of memory or give-and-take of a discussion makes him rage and shake his fist once more. Do I always need to win? Is it as simple as damning pride?
Some mornings I catch my reflection unawares (at least I think I’m in there somewhere). That face. Contorted, twisted, my tongue jabbing about as if chasing a lizard’s hiss. I scare myself as I scar myself and Monkeydemon howls.
Jenny couldn’t help, not like she wanted to, other than to sometimes say, “Are you listening to me, Shope, or are you having a fight with someone in your head?” That very nearly brought me back. Nearly. I couldn’t free myself from the loop, sentenced to entertain the same self-defeating mantras. I can’t think my way out of this since it is the thought process itself that has been corrupted. My consciousness needs an airing out, but how? Jenny once put her hand upon my shoulder, blessing me. “You need to stop, Shope.”
The raft kisses water with a slight splash, not much louder than the fish jumping in the fog. I use my flashlight sparingly. I don’t want to alert anybody who may be around, even though I bet no one is around. People have plans: boozed-up parties, watching old movies, and—bless those good parents—first nights teaming with fun and games, but without a trace of alcohol, although probably one of the better secret games is “Hide the Flask.” And, of course, sex. Did you know that the most common birthday is October 5? Do the math.
I secure the hooks onto the concrete, lower the ladder. Now, I am a man who keeps reasonably fit, but I am too old for this bullshit. I lift myself over the guardrail like someone might cross a barricade. I toe about for the rung meant for me, the angle that works best, and swing around. “Damn!” The rope-ladder wriggles; nearly shakes me off. I never learned to swim, but I am more afraid of freezing to death than drowning if I hit the water. Though Achilles emerged nearly invulnerable, I won’t make that bet. I wait until the contractions ease.
I thank the goddess Styx who, understand now, doesn’t replace my Christian God. She is to me what Aristotle was to Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the lights before the Light of the World who can still be put to good use. For I did indeed pray for acceptance and eventually accepted, but only in a theological sense that points out the difference between matter and spirit.
The phrase from the hymn plays on: “My soul is longing.” Longing. Longing, I tell you. I never realized just how much spiritual real estate a longing soul occupies. In the middle of the night, I listen to the moan of a passing train. “She’s dead and gone.” “She’d want you to be happy.” “People need you in the here and now.” “Move on!” “Time heals!” All the clichés smolder like remnants of a forest fire after longing sweeps through. A soul longing moves more mountains than the faith of saints. I accepted Jenny’s death, yes, even as I wondered if I could somehow pull it out in the fifth quarter.
I ease myself onto the raft, wobbling to my seat like a wedding guest gone over the limit. Fog shrouds my vision as I feel my way to the seat. While the rocking settles, I take short, sharp breaths. Phew! It’s a few degrees above freezing, but there’s no ice. I place the oars in their holders, get them acquainted with the water and begin rowing, in zigzags at first but eventually I grab some rhythm.
I’d been set on finding the real River Styx, like archeologists every seven years or so trek after Noah’s Ark, or Troy, or Peking Man. Oh yes, I’d thought of true adventuring, the kind where you leave home and loved ones and maybe turn up some years later bearded, burned, and brittle and irrevocably altered by coming aface of things you’d never sought to find, like the Copper Scroll, or keys to the Secret City of Paititi, or a cache of Fabergé Eggs.
My research (and, admittedly, an innate tendency to stay put) made me conclude that I don’t actually need to find the River Styx. That’s buried beneath mounds of history somewhere in Greece or Rome. Some archeological X-ray might one day pinpoint it, dry in the shadowy earth, looking like one of those spider webs astronomers point to when making the case that there might once have been life on Mars. I don’t have to find the original. The goddess can bless any body of water. Cross it, and see your lost loved one. I search not for the river, but for the blessing.
That is what I am thinking one night not long ago. I am that fellow at the end of the bar at the Colonial Tavern, a cozy with history dating back to 1703. The regulars on this particular Saturday watch college football and I look at the screen because it’s rude to ogle the barmaid. I am just another regular guy interested in regular guy things.
“Believe this shit?” the man beside me asks. There’s been an interception or sack or something that irritates him. He and his friend are about my age.
His buddy dwells on other things.
“My cousin a few houses away—his son keeps upping the ante. This time three live bands. I’ll stop for a beer, maybe two. Usually, I’m in bed by midnight.”
“I’m blasting my shotgun right over the top of my asshole neighbor’s roof. See what he thinks about that.”
“They land in Darrington Park. Nobody there that time of night except for deer.”
“Venison by the River Styx.”
On the television, a goddess stands on the bow, while shadowy figures row in the background. She’s holding a beer—Charon Porter. Now, I dwell in my head and overlook the obvious, but this is the only time I ever see this ad. And my bar mates are not the sort of guys you’d expect would casually mention Styx though, less I be accused of stereotyping, you don’t expect Styx to come up in conversation with anyone. So, yes, I can be a bit dense, but even I realize that someone somewhere sends me a signal.
Now, I smoothly pace my way to the island. The raft comes with headlights that cut through the caul only a bit, but I know where I am going. I’m getting good at this, I think, though my hands no doubt will tell a different story tomorrow. A firework winks on the horizon, the hooting and cheering becomes more persistent.
I don’t know if I can bring Jenny back with me, back to the living. I don’t know if it’s my time to stay with her and rest with the dead. What I’ll probably find is a few wet pathways leading to campsites teenagers set up, even though fire in Darrington is supposed to be confined to the brick barbecue grills on the mainland. Maybe, just maybe, I will discover what drives Monkeydemon off for good. What did Jenny tell me?
Visualize a pair of scissors snipping an audiotape, ending the destructively circuitous thoughts that anyone who’d ever been obsessed about anything knows too well. But that had never worked for me. I admitted as much during one of those endless days before she died.
“Don’t let those tapes play when I’m gone,” she warns.
“You’re not going anywhere!”
“No tapes about losing the house. No tapes about getting fired. No tapes about me. No tapes. You’re a strong man, Shope.”
“You’re the strong one.”
“Cancer doesn’t think so.”
“Who uses tapes anymore?” I ask.
She collapses into the morphine again.
“What I do imagine,” I say, “ is that the thoughts are looped on a disc. And I push the disc away, as if it’s on a basket on a river. The loop is still going, because nothing can stop it. Only, now the loop loops outside of my consciousness. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”
“I guess it is crazy,” I decide.
Her reply is weak, but startles me nonetheless.
Once while rowing I think I see Monkeydemon, sitting in the back. Looking shy, scratching his head, mugging. Jenny would have thought he’s cute, but she didn’t know him like I do. I look away, look back, and he’s gone.
“Mirage,” I say to the darkness, but of course he’s a mirage. He’s a mirage every time he appears.
Now, the raft slides onto the pebbled shore.
As I step onto land a chilling wind slices me. I stand for a full two minutes or so just shaking and groaning. I zip my coat up until the hood opening is as big as a pair of goggles. As the shuddering subsides, I hear calls; not distant celebrations, but animals in the nearby woods. I know nothing out there can maul and eat me; this isn’t Africa, after all. Still, I reach down with gloved hands and place a few rocks in my pocket.
There’s a main path that I’d pinpointed while pretending to be bird watching in the park. It cuts in two this island, which, I suddenly realize, must have a name. The park rangers probably tagged it, or some cartographer long ago laboring over dusty outlines. Humans name things.
I walk straight through, from one side to another and then take another path that leads me from top to bottom. I don’t rush, training the flashlight on my next step. The fog is not as firmly entrenched as it had been on the lake. The place is shaped like a rectangle whose angles have been smushed. My wanderings last about a half hour or so and I note places where smaller paths lead into brush more closely packed. My next go-around, I decide, I’ll follow one of them.
And then, and then, and then…. What surprises me is that I am not surprised. I am not startled. Acceptance works my veins like laborers’ exhaustion, and I’m all right with the light that floods the clearing.
Oh, I so wish that there is more to my revelation than that. A burning bush. A roll of thunder. A division of the earth. No, it’s a light brightening like one of those overheads whose vibrancy can be controlled.
I grew up in a neighborhood where fathers told sons to hold it in. I was never good at stoicism, though. In fact, with all the shit Jenny went through I found out that I am damn crybaby.
So when I approach and I see Jenny on that island in Darrington Park as a new year bears down upon us, of course I cry. Of course. It’s her! Here again! She was dead, and now she’s alive! She sits in front of the fire like she used to sit while binge-watching TV. And, of course, she looks like she did 35 years ago when we first met. Why would she want to look like that pitiful lump toward the end? Jenny! Again! Unruly brown hair, and eyes that twinkle with mischief and curiosity.
“I knew you’d come looking, Shope!” Her mirth; I’d almost forgotten how it makes everything right.
I unzip my hood, and her smile morphs into concern. When I walk over, I kneel, bury my head in her stomach and continue weeping, shaking. Jenny strokes my hair and says, “Oh Shope. It’s going to be all right. We’re going to be all right.”
“Am I good husband?”
“No, Shope. You’re the worst husband who ever lived! Don’t be ridiculous. Here,” she holds out an empty wine glass, “refill and, for God’s sake, boyo, get yourself a beer.”
Oh, yes, there’s a refrigerator. Our side-by-side recliner, coffee table, mantle. I don’t think as I settle next to her about how otherworldly this is. I accept. Otherworldly is what I’m after. I wish I’d thought about bringing a tape recorder or video camera, because we talk about regular everyday things, we catch up, and I know a lot of the words will be lost. Not the feeling, though. Not the joy of being with my Jenny again.
I reach over, hold her hand. Her grip tightens.
“What was that?”
Jenny always heard noises in the middle of the night and sometimes I’d investigate and sometimes I blame the house settling. It took forever for that damn house to settle. This isn’t the house, though, and there’s definitely something moving just beyond the circle of light.
“Be careful, Shope. Don’t want to lose you again.”
The veins in my temples pulse as I walk from my chair toward the enveloping dark. I did not come prepared, but would a gun have mattered? Can I fight shadows? I can sure as hell try. I reach in my pocket for one of the stones.
Though I have never been more awake in my life, when that howl explodes—a mix of animal and earthmover—it’s as if a cymbal is crashed against my ear. The sound punches me, nearly knocking me over. I swing about. Monkeydemon leaps from the brush on the other side of the circle and charges Jenny. I run to intercept, but stumble.
I don’t even remember throwing the rock. I must have done so like a baseball shortstop reaches back and flings while in mid-dive. Clunk! Right on the side of his head, nearly in the eye.
“Hell!” I need a direct hit. If it had been in the eye that might have been the end of it.
Monkeydemon stops, screams, throws his fists in the air, brings them down upon his chest. Drumity! Drumity! Drumity! By now I’ve managed to half-run, half-crawl over between him and Jenny.
Monkeydemon bares his teeth, charges once more.
“Shope!” Jenny screams.
I forget that I am basically a quiet man. All the noise and chatter happens inside. So when I scream, “No!” it comes from a place even deeper and wider than where dwell Monkeydemon and the other malevolent shadows. It echoes down through ancestors, the mad ones, the hunters, the alphas. They scream through me, though it doesn’t stop Monkeydemon’s charge. He lunges. I brandish my arms to take him on, but he flies higher, soaring over me and Jenny, landing behind our seats. I pivot in time to see his legs—horizontal pistons—fling him back into the shadows.
I faint. Only for a moment and I do not totally lose consciousness, but I do hit the ground. Jenny’s there. She brushes me, as she eases me to my feet and leads me back to my bearings. The fog has lifted even more and New Year’s Eve noise rolls closer.
“Victory dance, Shope!”
“You beat Monkeydemon! Dance!
I stick my arms out like Frankenstein’s monster, shuffle a bit.
“We’ll work on that,” Jenny says.
“He attacked because of me.”
“This anger. This rage.”
“You drove it back, Shope,” Jenny says. “And when you drive it back, you need to congratulate yourself and then say a prayer for whoever was the target. This should not depress you, Shope! It should uplift you! You won!”
By this time we are back in our recliner, watching the fire, listening to the celebratory gatherings beyond the park.
I remember: “Some guy’s going to fire a shotgun.”
“Be here now,” Jenny says.
“We need shelter.”
She pats my hand.
“Go ahead, Shope. There’s a down tree over there, you can slide beneath it.”
I stay put. Pellets? Really? What are the chances?
I say, “So keeping myself from killing someone, or cursing someone out, or scaring the shit out of them: That’s some sort of moral victory?”
“And the victory isn’t complete until the prayer. You have to pray for the object of your hatred, Shope. Then you’ve won.”
“Because I don’t go psycho?”
“Because you’ve kept it in. And little by little Monkeydemon will realize that you can’t be beaten. He’ll give up. Celebrate little victories, Shope!”
From the houses beyond the lake and trees comes the countdown. “….three, two, one!”
Though I believe in endings, here my story simply stops. I’ve had enough landings for one tale. Do I return to the living? Do I bring Jenny with me? Do I fall in the lake and emerge invulnerable to grief? Do I stay in the other realm? Do park rangers the next day puzzle over the rope-ladder on the bridge and the blown over raft on the island? Do they find my shotgun-pellet-ridden body? Do I become a local legend? A ghost story? “What in the world was he doing in the park on New Year’s Eve?” Do I now speak from the other side? Or do I sit at the Colonial Tavern pretending to watch another football game? Am I just one of those crazies full of quiet fury who make things up?
Wouldn’t you like to know?